By Invitation Only?: Private Summit Actually Threatens to Undermine Emergence Christianity

Posted on The Emergent Village Voice on Patheos on January 16, 2013 By

The day before the national book event honoring Phyllis Tickle in Memphis, roughly 50 (Correction: 35) emergent movement leaders had a State of Emergence Christianity meeting. The meeting was organized by Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, also the organizers of the book event.  (Correction: Phyllis Tickle called the meeting and contracted JOPA Productions to organize it. This article is intended as a critique of organizing styles, not a personal or professional attack. Please see my follow up blog for further clarification.)

The invitation went out in the same email that invited Phyllis’s “favorite people” to do a presentation at her book event, so I think it’s accurate to say that the people in the room were friends of Phyllis. Perhaps more people were invited after the fact, however the language in the invitation email states specifically, “In advance of the Emergence Christianity conference in January, Phyllis Tickle has asked us (Tony and Doug) to organize a private, invitation-only gathering of some of her favorite people.” The invitation goes on to state the topic of the summit, “Together or Not? How Will Emergence Christianity Proceed?”

Now this is all very confusing, and dare I say troubling on a number of levels. First of all, Emergence Christianity has always been conveyed to me as a movement. In fact, Brian McLaren is now teaching movement theory in his speaking gigs and framing Emergence Christianity as thus. There are principles to social movements that are adopted and practiced for various practical and philosophical reasons. The way this meeting was organized violates social movement cornerstone principles in a number of ways. As an organizer in many social and environmental movements in the past 20 years — ranging from the Political Prisoners/Prison Industrial Complex movement, to the Global Justice (Anti-Globalization) movement, the Environment Justice/Green Jobs movement, the Native American Big Mountain struggle, Racial and Economic Justice and the Occupy movement — this is one area I feel more than qualified to put forth this critique.

Private Summit

This sorely violates the principle of transparency vital to all social movements. The only way for people to develop the level of buy-in needed to build a movement is for them to trust the leadership. If leaders are having exclusive, closed doors discussions on how to move the movement forward, there’s no way for for people to: A) know what’s going on; B) agree with the strategies moving the movement forward; C) engage in the process; and D) be able to hold the leadership accountable.

Invitation Only Private Summit

The invite-only nature of this meeting not only excludes people and hurts feelings, but is also an expression of hierarchical organizing. As a movement that exults and develops practitioners of flat structures, the exclusive nature of this summit was completely out of line with who we are. It also violates the principle of the invitation inherit to successful social movements. Essentially two white men invited their friends and had a secret, exclusive strategy meeting on the state of the movement and most of us were not invited.

When Phyllis’s book event was announced as a national gathering, people made some of the assumptions people make about our national gatherings. People wanted to advise Doug about including speakers of color and having a more inclusive space for folks of non-dominant cultures. Doug was quite adamant in communicating that JoPa (Doug and Tony’s company) was contracted to produce a book event for Phyllis, that the event was a celebration for Phyllis and would be produced by committee, so to speak.

The invitation states that Phyllis requested this summit in advance of her book event. However, I am told that, during the framing for the meeting, Phyllis actually interjected and said that she did NOT request the summit. (Correction: Phyllis Tickle did call the meeting. ) One can only surmise that Doug and Tony extended the power bestowed upon them by Phyllis to be exclusive in the organizing of her book event, and seized the opportunity to call a meeting on the future of the Emergent Movement with just the people they wanted in the room. Now I don’t know Tony, but I absolutely adore Doug and would defend his honor to a great extent. However, this manipulation of power does nothing to nurture trust in their leadership. (Correction: My intent here is to illustrate how damaging invitation only organizing is, not to cast attack any individuals. These guys have a demonstrated track record in conference organizing.)

If, in fact, we identify as a Christian social movement, where is the transparency vital to social movements and the flat structure that we so value?

I would like to chalk all this up to ignorance. These guys have been writing incredible books, preaching, and speaking, developing thriving communities of faith and all kinds of great work. They have not however been in the front lines of massive international social movements that would crumble without transparency and open inclusivity. So I am absolutely willing to give these guys the benefit of the doubt as long as we can forgo this kind organizing in the future.

How to Move Forward as a Movement?

Movement building is nothing less than an art form. When done well, it grows participation, increases buy-in and builds consensus. Done badly or not at all, conflict arises, consensus cannot be reached and people leave the movement with bad feelings. I have seen it go both ways. Here’s a few movement building tools and opportunities that I can see at a glance:

1- Emergent Village Cohorts

These are local expressions of the Emergent Movement. When veteran movement folks steward these spaces, new people seeking a safe space to explore Christianity outside the box are able to hook in. These are also places where folks who can’t afford the conference fees or time to travel to national gatherings can participate and influence the direction of the movement. I’d personally like to thank Mike Clawson for his tireless commitment to maintaining the cohort directory on the Emergent Village site.

2- Emergent Cohort Summit

Cohorts who are able to send someone to our national gatherings, bring news of their local work and report back to their cohort from the gathering. These cross pollinators play a vital role in connecting the work at the local level with that of the national gathering. This would function as part of the feedback loop required to share and get buy-in on the organizing trends emerging from various facets of the movement.

3- Emergent Village

EV could be a open movement platform for finding each other, gathering together, sharing resources, listing movement events, and being the point of entry for newcomers to the movement. Currently there are three people on the board, one of whom is Doug Pagitt and pervasive perception is that EV has become a proprietary brand of Doug’s, which is something that needs to change. EV could have a table at every emergent-minded event and become the outreach and organizing platform for the movement, but that will require new leadership.

4- Regional Skill Shares

To share the focus, power, and leadership in the movement with practitioners (a shift from author-centered focus) skill shares could be held and hosted by cohorts around the country. Authors could lend their name and following to support the skill share happening in their region. Practitioners would get the opportunity to share and workshop their stuff in a supportive environment. Folks living in the same regions could meet and find ways to support one another’s work. (TransFORM Network is already hosting regional events that could be a platform for this.)

5- Working Groups

Movements need to be stewarded. Emergent Village (as an open non-proprietary entity in this scenario) could issue a call to establish working groups to steward the movement. A few examples of working groups are media, cohort gathering organizing group, finance, cohort resourcing (developing tool kits to help new cohorts start up), and outreach (organize folks to table at emergent-minded events around the country.)

6- Mutual and Collective Liberation

No social movement can survive today without an analysis of all the “isms” of oppression. There is great deal of Biblical basis to the principle of social movements that assert that we are not free while others are oppressed. Progressive white folks who have done work around white privilege along with folks of non-dominant cultures in our movement keep driving this point.

Sadly, this is often met with resistance from folks who haven’t adequately explored their own privilege. Without the consciousness of our own privilege, we are ill-equipped to be allies to those of non-dominant cultures. If you notice that your Emergent gathering is mostly white dominant culture folks, it’s because this movement has not wholly embraced anti-opression work.

I was recently part of a conference call with movement leaders of color who essentially stated that white people need to talk to other white people about privilege before they feel comfortable inviting their communities of color to be involved. Many people of color need an environment where the legacy of racism that we’ve inherited needs to be openly acknowledged, before they feel like they belong. White people also commonly express what psychology calls “micro-aggressions.” There are ways that subtle, ingrained expressions of racism get communicated by dominant culture folks without their awareness.

7- Facilitating a Process to Create Demands

If you have seen Brian McLaren speak recently, you know that social movements function to identify and articulate demands of institutions to change. He is very astute to say that we’re not ready to articulate cohesive demands as a movement, until we have a more diverse group of folks in the conversation. I would venture to say that while invitation-only private summits are being held in secret to determine the future of the movement, we are not ready to take this step.

This list is not exhaustive and meant only to jumpstart a greater brainstorm and conversation on how to steward and build this movement. With the institutions of church declining in the U.S., this national movement has a powerful role in stewarding Christianity as safe haven and a positive transforming force in people’s lives.

Sadly, the follow up from this meeting includes the creation of “secret” Facebook group called “Emergence Christianity (Memphis) Visioning Group.”  I can’t stress enough how out of alignment this private conversation is. I urge the folks involved to open up the conversation to the wider movement and create the feedback loops needed to make this process transparent. I am told the meeting was recorded and copious notes were made. I encourage the people involved to make this documentation widely available online and end the exclusive manner in which this meeting was planned and carried out.   In order to continue to evolve into this role, the Emergent movement needs to embrace transparency and openness or it will fail.

I offer this critique with love and compassion for my brothers and sisters in this movement and in Christ.

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